This is episode 3 called Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age in Iberia and in this episode you will learn:
- How was the Iberian Peninsula during the Prehistory, except for the Iron Age
- Remark that Prehistory is the less-known period of human history, and that new archeological or genetic findings are constantly challenging previous theories
- The archeological site of Atapuerca, the most important Prehistoric one of Spain and Europe
- The first settlers of the Iberian Peninsula
- The Cave of Altamira
- The slow process of Neolithization, first in the south and southeast and later in the north
- The urbanized and stratified town of Los Millares of the Spanish Copper Age
- Recent genetic studies that indicate that there may have been a big migration of Indo-Europeans between the Copper and Bronze Age
- The Argaric culture of the Bronze Age
- Important changes in the Late Bronze period
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 3, called Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age in Iberia. In this episode you will learn how was the Iberian Peninsula during the Prehistory, except for the Iron Age that we will see in the next two episodes. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
Okay, the first thing you have to know about Prehistory is that new archeological findings challenge the previous theories every time, and I’m not talking about Spain but in general. Therefore, take everything with a grain of salt because in the future some things that I will say may be refuted by new findings. For instance, the ‘Out of Africa’ theory has been challenged by recent evidence found in places like China or Morocco. We rely on a few skeletons and tools to determine the chronological and geographical evolution of the human species, so any new discovery made by archeologists, geneticists or anthropologists can change our entire paradigm of the origins of human beings. At least it’s safe to say, following the Out of Africa hypothesis, that the firsts Homo Sapiens went out of Africa much earlier than initially thought, in 120.000 BC, and that those Homo sapiens intermixed with the Neanderthals and Denisovan.
The oldest rests of a Homo specie in Europe was found in the most famous archeological site of Spain, Atapuerca, dating back 1’2 or 1’3 million years. The rests have yet to be identified with a known specie, but they could belong to a new one. Anyway, in the prolific prehistoric site of Atapuerca paleontologists found Homo species like the Homo antecessor, the Homo heidelbergensis, or the much more recent rests of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.
In the Paleolithic, Europe looked very different than how it looks nowadays. Elephants, rhinos and lions lived in Europe and the north and much of central Europe was frozen. That’s why the early humans used caves as refugees. Homo species lived as nomads and hunter-gatherers, and they were also scavengers and even cannibals. Let’s picture a group of those early humans. Some did the hunting, going where the animals went to drink or graze, attacking in group, preparing ambushes. Others had the task to transport the prey, skin the game, cook or to gather fruits. We can already see social structures and specialization before the discovery of agriculture.
The first settlers of the Iberian Peninsula presumably used the Strait of Gibraltar to come in. Around 200,000 years ago the Neanderthals started to move to the Peninsula, and they weren’t wiped out at least until 28,000 years ago. Homo sapiens entered the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the Paleolithic and they coexisted with the Neanderthals during a long ass time.
Along with France, the Iberian Peninsula is one of the top regions when it comes to Paleolithic cave paintings, with the famous Cave of Altamira as the most relevant of all. The Cave of Altamira was discovered in 1868 in the northern region of Cantabria, and it’s famous for the many parietal cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, with some paintings made 36,000 years ago. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the entrance of the cave, which helped to preserve the paintings. The polychromatic art displayed in the cave is astonishing, as visitors can enjoy beautiful images of steppe bison, horses and deer. Google Cave of Altamira or go to thehistoryofspain.com because it’s impressive how humans made beautiful drawings back in the Paleolithic.
Around 12,000 BC the Allerød Oscillation occurred and that changed the climate conditions, ending the last ice age. As the climate became warmer, there were technological changes and big animals like mammoths got extinct, so hunted animals became smaller and humans had to also start consuming seafood to survive. In this period called the Mesolithic we find regional differences in the industries of the Iberian Peninsula, a trend that was happening all over Europe. The most remarkable thing of this period is the rock art that can be found all over the Spanish Mediterranean Basin, especially in Valencia and Aragon. We are talking about more than 700 pieces of art from this period, which is the largest collection found in Europe. The Homo sapiens of this period didn’t only paint animals, they started painting humans as well. They showed how they used honey for instance to attract animals and hunt them, scenes of fighting and dancing, and how they already used skirts and even masks that were used by people of a certain role or status.
Moving on to the Neolithic around 6,000 BC, the Neolithic signified the widespread use of agriculture as a source of food. For the first time humans were trying to control and shape nature to satisfy their demands. The first agriculturalists probably came from North Africa with early forms of ships, as the southern region of Andalusia is the first to have signs of cultivation of food. It took more time to domesticate animals though. Later on, humans of the Peninsula started to build dolmen tombs around 4,800 BC, and to fabricate pottery. The invention of pottery is very important, as now humans were able to storage products and plan their future. All these things were signs seen pretty much everywhere in the world that indicated that societies grew larger and more complex. Nonetheless, the spread of agriculture was more limited in the interior and northern regions of Iberia.
In Cádiz, archeologists found an incredible necropolis while inspecting an area to build a hockey stadium. The necropolis is from around 4,300 BC and one of the most stunning things discovered in Cádiz is the burial of two humans, one man and one woman, intertwined and hugging, which suggests that they were lovers. Spanish archeologists also found that they incinerated domestic animals and buried them in the very same necropolis. Maybe because they loved their cats and dogs or maybe for religious rituals.
It was somewhere between the 5th and 4th millennia BC that the Balearic Islands started to be inhabited, while the first settlers of the Canary Islands moved there at the start of the Neolithic or even before, although they were Berbers from North Africa, not settlers from Iberia.
The pattern we see in the Neolithic is that Andalusia and Valencia, that is in southern and southeastern Spain, were always the first of the Peninsula to get the latest technologies, the center adopted technologies later and the north even later. I’m saying that because, even though the process of Neolithization began in the 6,000 BC, the Neolithic didn’t arrive in Asturias or Cantabria until 3,000 BC. That’s a very long time, I think that the dates matter here to get an idea of how limited cultural diffusion at the time was and how isolated the human communities were.
The main economic activity, agriculture, was focused on the cultivation of wheat and barley, although legumes were planted as well. Agriculture has two main advantages: many more people can be feed in comparison to hunting or gathering food, and it’s a safer option to be sedentary as cereals can be stored and it’s riskier to move around seeking food. It has some disadvantages as well, most notably the diet can be less balanced and less energetic, but the pros seemed to have overwhelmed the cons. Now talking about cattle, the usual domesticated animals to consume were, not surprisingly, cows, sheep, goats and pigs. Most of the rests of cattle found in the Iberian Peninsula belong the sheep and goats, I’m talking about 50 or 60% of the cattle, and that is very interesting because that means that many Neolithic Iberians were pastoralists, an intermediate step between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. From this period, we have very well-preserved necklaces, bracelets, rings, combs, spoons and even espadrilles made of esparto. Those human-made tools and ornaments were definitely the basis for urban and developed societies.
The Neolithic also brought a change in the religious beliefs, as humans started to represent gods and to make all kind of rituals to bear a child, to have a good harvest, to have a good military campaign and so on. This time they painted schematically, in caves but more frequently in portable objects that gave them luck and protection. Regarding the burial of the dead, they did it collectively and in artificial structures.
The Chalcolithic or Copper Age follows the Neolithic. This period, that started around the third millennium in the Iberian Peninsula, is when humans started to develop this fascination for shiny things and began extracting and working copper, silver and gold. Metal goods became popular especially in the south and there is evidence that long-distance trade was a thing already. The Beaker culture, an archeological culture of Europe, was spread in many places of Iberia, where archeologists have found numerous bell-shaped beakers that were used for multiple reasons, one being to have a recipient to store alcoholic drinks. This Copper Age also sought the greatest expansion of megaliths to bury the dead for practical and religious purposes. Again, there are regional differences, as megalithism was common in Atlantic Iberia but not so much in the Mediterranean.
We find already relatively big urbanized towns protected by walls, like Los Millares in Andalusia that had an estimated population of 1,000 people. Los Millares relied primarily on agriculture to be a powerful city of the area, but it’s more significant for us their mining and metalwork industries. They divided the process of metalworking, indicating a considerable degree of specialization, and their society was stratified. The 70 beehive-styled tombs built, and the 4 lines of fortifications suggest that Los Millares was often at war. A very interesting question is why this town was so developed in Almería, a very arid region of Spain that is hardly suitable for traditional agricultural techniques. Archeologist Clay Mathers thinks that the agricultural limitations and the investment to build irrigation systems made the settlers look for an administrative warrior class that protected their land. There are other theories, but none can be contrasted with the empiric evidence we have.
Now let’s take a break and talk about recent genetic studies, because it was during this period between the Copper and Bronze Age that genetics changed substantially. During the third millennium BC, Iberia received newcomers both from the north and south. Apparently 40% of male Iberians descend from a common ancestor that lived 4,500 years ago, and around the same time there was a replacement of the native males of the Peninsula, according to the findings of a study of Harvard University published a few weeks ago. There are already archeologists and historians questioning the study, so the information I’m gonna talk about now could be wrong. According to the study, the Caucasian Indo-European people known as Yamna would have gradually substituted many people of the continent, especially men since they were conquerors, and, as conquerors, they wanted to have sex with the native women. The R1b haplogroup clearly dominates Spanish genetics, and this Y-chromosome was spread in Spain with the Indo-European invasion of the Yamna. As I said earlier in this episode, Prehistory is still the most mysterious and confusing period of human history, and we continually get new archeological or genetic findings that challenge the theories we have today, so take everything from this era with a grain of salt.
Around 1,800 BC the Bronze Age spread in Iberia. This period was characterized for, guess what, the spread of the secret to produce bronze, a material harder and longer-lasting compared to other metals available at the time. The firsts writings appeared in this age but only in Mesopotamia and the regions nearby. Most notably, the culture of Los Millares disappeared but was replaced by the Argaric culture in the same region of Almería and Murcia. The Argaric culture was characterized by the demographic growth of towns, an increasing stratification, individual burials under homes and towns built in areas of difficult access for defensive purposes, near sources of potable water or near mines. There is debate whether there was a state dominated by a singly king or the Argaric were numerous independent city-states with a common culture. The existence of large storages for cereals indicates that there was some degree of centralization, and archeological evidence suggests that production was specialized in each geographical zone, with mining and farming towns complementing their activities. That means that Argaric towns traded with each other and presupposes the existence of sociopolitical institutions. The Argaric region of southeastern Spain was the economic powerhouse of Iberia, producing weapons like knives, swords, arrows and axes, as well as glass, pottery and textile manufacture. We can see that with the Treasure of Villena, which is an incredible collection of gold from the European Bronze Age, with bowls, bottles and bracelets made of gold and worked in detail. From the Argaric region, the technique of producing bronze slowly spread over the Peninsula.
After 1,300 BC many changes occurred that opened the Late Bronze period. The old Argaric culture disintegrated, the degree of specialization fell, hunting increased and livestock production outproduced pastoral activities once and for all. The pattern of settlements changed, as there was a trend of occupying plateaus and low, better communicated areas, which helped to develop the economy but made them more vulnerable in case of military attack. The Late Bronze Age is considerably important for the Iberian Peninsula, because the previous politically centralized areas disappeared, while the focal urbanized and economically important area shifted towards the Atlantic and Southwestern Spain. For instance, Galicia provided tin and lead, necessary to make true bronze, while the Guadalquivir Valley exported bronze. Because of that, the Iberian Peninsula became an important commercial hub and link between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Moreover, new waves of Celts arrived in the territories of northern and central Spain, something that would change the genetics and cultures of those regions.
THE VERDICT: This is the first episode with The Verdict section, and as I explained in the first introductory episode, here I will give my reflections, thoughts or just rhetorical questions about today’s topic. My reflection is, how little we know about our own origins and what’s more fascinating to me is how we, and by we I mean humans, are always revising our knowledge with new findings that arise new questions too. And that’s a good thing, right? If we didn’t have curiosity, we would still be living like our ancestors of the Paleolithic. And not only that, if there weren’t a few inquiring minds that would constantly seek “the truth”, we would still explain history using myths and religious beliefs. Humanity wouldn’t progress if there weren’t people with critical thinking and scientific aspirations, that’s why it’s so important to promote these kinds of values. And with that, The Verdict ends.
The Iron Age, starting around 800 BC, is the protohistory of Iberia. What that means is that we know from the peoples that inhabited the Peninsula not by the natives, but by other civilizations that had writing systems. I will talk about the First Iron Age and the Second Iron Age in the next two episodes, focusing on the native and colonial cultures that settled in the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman conquest. To end this episode, let me remind you that I built a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes and a list of books about Spanish history available on Amazon and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow and give feedback in the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. DESDE LA PREHISTORIA HASTA LA CONQUISTA ROMANA (SIGLO III a.C.). Planeta
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license